A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe (book review).

December 30, 2015 | By | Reply More

There is much debate amongst the reading public as to the future of the book and libraries. For the older generation, brought up to appreciate printed matter, there is not much doubt as to what should happen. Certainly, electronic books have their uses. University students don’t have to cart around huge tomes, kindles fit into pockets, the same way paperbacks used to and you can take more of them with you on holiday without worrying about the weight. Problems arise only when sand and sea get into the unit or you cannot recharge because you’ve brought the wrong adaptor with you. The author can’t sign your eBook neither. Paper or electronic copies are a matter of choice. Libraries are a different matter. Whether they will disappear or not will depend of the far or short-sightedness of the councils that fund them.


The library conjured by Gene Wolfe in ‘A Borrowed Man’ is totally unlike anything that could be conceived in today’s society. A hundred years on, paper books are almost a thing of the past. Inside it, you don’t check out books. Instead, the shelves are homes to clones of the authors and they are there to be consulted or borrowed. As they are clones, they are not regarded as human but are the property of the library. Like books today, if they are not borrowed often enough, they are disposed of and cease to exist. They, however, don’t feel any different from the person from whom they were cloned and have all that person’s memories. They are not permitted to write, so no new stories or poems will be added to oeuvre of the deceased.

E.A. Smithe was a writer of crime fiction. He is first consulted, then borrowed by Colette Coldbrook. She wants to know how something can be hidden in a book. At first, she is reluctant to explain why, but then shows him the book concerned. It is ‘Murder On Mars’ by E.A. Smithe. He doesn’t remember writing it and concludes that it must be from the period between the memories were recorded and the original’s death. Not that that helps. The reason Colette thinks something must be concealed in the book is because, after her father disappeared and was presumed dead, that was the only object found in his safe. Then her brother was murdered. Therefore, she concludes that it is valuable, but not merely as a book. Smithe agrees to help her solve the mystery. He wants to see the scene of the crime, which means that she has to check him out for ten days.

When Colette disappears, Smithe has a problem. He has no money as he’s not allowed any but needs to get back to his library before the expiry period of the loan. Turning himself into the nearest library, he expects to be taken back to his own library and the events of the previous few days forgotten about. That is where he is wrong because suddenly two other people want to check him out.

From this point, the novel takes on the format of a crime thriller, very much of the ilk that Smithe would have written in his life-time. Since ‘A Borrowed Man’ has a first person narrative, it is not surprising that the style is a reflection of Smithe’s actual writing. As a result, this has a fast-paced action orientated plot. This version of the author is a largely a moral being suggestion that his original would have been as well.

Wolfe is using the format of this novel to play with the tropes of the Chandleresque crime thrillers while adding Science Fiction details. Part of his plot hinges on the pulp fiction ideas that have been supplanted by realism in modern crime. Wolfe is also using the book as a vehicle to express his concerns about the fate of libraries and the printed book. Whatever you are prepared to read into the text, there is no doubt that this is an enjoyable read, despite not being one of Wolfe’s strongest and most complex books.

Pauline Morgan

December 2015

(pub: TOR/Forge, 2015. 297 page hardback. Price: $25.99 (UK). IBSN: 978-0-7653-8114-9)

check out website: www.tor-forge.com

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Category: Books, Scifi

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